Good memories come to mind when Vanessa Williams thinks back on the 1970s. The pop music diva, Broadway stage star and Hollywood leading lady revisited the era via a treasure trove of classic love songs on her new CD, "Everlasting Love," which includes a guest appearance by guitarist and singer George Benson, on Lava Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, in New York City.
"The '70s was an era near and dear to my heart," said Williams recently via cell phone en route to a tour stop in Pennsylvania. In the coming weeks and months, her current tour will take her to Mississippi, Atlanta, Ga. and California. "That's the kind of music I always tend to listen to and my friends do, too. That's the appeal. It brings back memories and you can sing along with the melody and it makes you feel good."
Williams, 42, teamed with her longtime producer Rob Mathes to refine her beautiful interpretations of soulful, love classics such as Gloria Gaynor's "Never Can Say Goodbye," Al Wilson's "Show and Tell," Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Billy Preston and Syreeta's "With You I'm Born Again," Stevie Wonder's "Send One Your Love," Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye's "You Are Everything," Fifth Dimension's "One Less Bell To Answer," Ray Charles and Chaka Khan's "I'll Be Good To You" and the Isley Brother's "Harvest To The World."
"It was a matter of finding ones that people would remember, ones that were a little obscure, but important to me and ones that we just had to do," she said.
Lava Records' executives made an A list of songs, including "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Show and Tell" and the first single, "You Are Everything." Williams said she felt intimidated in her efforts to re-interpret them simply because of the extant, very well known original versions of those hit songs.
"Each of those songs is so well known that it's hard to top the original version," she said. "I had to wrap my head around a new approach in the studio just because I couldn't get the old ones out of my mind."
The singer placed all her trust in Mathes. She first met the producer through her friend Jeff Kievet who played trumpet in the Broadway hit, "Kiss of the Spider Woman." (Kievet also plays trumpet and Flugelhorn on the new CD). Williams is no stranger to Broadway though she has no offers to return to the Great White Way for the upcoming 2005-2006 season. Williams first appeared on Broadway, replacing Chita Rivera as the leading lady in that musical, in 1994, and she reprised the Witch role (first played by Bernadette Peters from 1987 to 1989) in Stephen Sondheim's "Into The Woods" in 2002 at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway in New York City.
During those years, Mathes became well known for producing Christmas shows in Purchase, N.Y. He produced Williams' first Christmas CD in 1996. She toured with her band in support of that recording. Later that same year, she did an ABC special and toured with Luther Vandross in 1997 with Mathes as her musical director. Last year, Mathes produced Williams' second Christmas CD, "Silver & Gold." It came as no surprise when Williams sought guidance from Mathes to create her unique versions of '70s love songs on her new CD.
"I surrendered them to Rob Mathes and said, 'Here, make them mine.' It was really up to him to bridge the gap between something that is so legendary and classic and something that sounds like what my style is. I think he did a great job in marrying the two," she said.
George Benson plays solo guitar on "Never Can Say Goodbye" and he sings in duet with Williams on "With You I'm Born Again." The guitarist recorded his instrumental and vocal tracks at Porcupine Studios in Phoenix and Williams did her vocal tracks at Sound on Sound in New York City.
Williams' personal favorite is Chaka Kahn and the Ohio Players' "Everlasting Love," which brought back memories of the first time she saw Chaka Khan in concert in New York.
"I'd even sing it after school with my girlfriend in her living room," she said. "We'd listen to that album and divide the parts up to do harmonies and stuff. Those songs are the ones that are fun."
Williams is also happy to announce her forthcoming return to the silver screen. She last appeared in "Shaft" in 2000 and "Johnson Family Vacation" in 2004. She recently completed work on director Anthony Lover's indie film, "My Brother," for Liberty Films, scheduled for release in late 2005.
"I play a mother of two boys - one who has Down-syndrome," she said. "She's a single mother who is dying of tuberculosis and she's desperately trying to get her sons adopted together before she passes away. I appear in flashbacks. It's basically a story about the two boys. It was a very tender, difficult part for me."
The script appealed to Williams because of its positive message about urban life in America. The cast also includes Christopher Scott and Tatum O'Neal.
Williams has overcome many setbacks in her own personal life and career. She survived the scandal of her nude photos in Penthouse that cost her the prestige of becoming the first black woman to be crowned Miss America in 1983. She recovered from her sense of personal failure and the soul-searching that resulted from her divorce to her former first husband Ramon Hervey in the mid-1990s and she's endured a separation from and her rocky marriage with ex-Los Angeles Lakers' star Rick Fox who filed for divorce in 2004, according to the Associated Press. Williams declined to comment on the current status of her relationship with Fox, but she did say she still knows how to survive any setbacks in life.
"I've always relied on perseverance, knowing that when the dust settles you'll get to do what you do," she said. "I think my parents gave me a great foundation and gave me the tools to cope with life." [Hicks]